Polarization is Not the Problem: A Post-Civic Culture

Increasingly, the dilemmas facing politics in the United States if not worldwide are being portrayed as outcomes of polarization. It is an attractive topic for discussion, because there is undeniably a great deal of polarization, if defined as wildly different (polar opposite) viewpoints on one or more issues. Moreover, it seems to be tied to popular conceptions of the role of the Internet in enabling individuals to find support for their views online, even if extreme. Conceptions of echo chambers and filter bubbles are tied to this perspective. While I have argued that echo chambers and filter bubbles have been over hyped and under researched, I also can’t believe that polarization has not been prominent throughout the history of American politics.

So what is the problem? What has changed?

Perhaps it is the degree that proponents of different viewpoints have begun to take more ideological, righteous, or even sectarian positions. Their opponents are not wrong, they are seen and portrayed as bad if not evil.

What is surprising about this in the context of American politics is our history of being the model of a so-called ‘civic culture’ (Almond and Versa 1963: 8), defined by a culture based on “communication” and “consensus” in which diverse opinions are moderated by the structures and process of the political system, such as the two-party system and our system of checks and balances. This view was roundly criticized as simply a description of American politics post-World War II, as contrasted with less stable democratic systems leading up to the second world war, such as the Weimar Republic. However, there has been some face validity to this civic culture notion, at least up to the divisions surrounding the Vietnam War. Today, the idea of a civic culture seem ludicrous. 

So I don’t think we should be as focused on the dynamics of polarization, or a diversity of opinions, but more on the dynamics of this politically sectarian righteousness. Maybe it is the nature of the issues being considered, such as the right to life, the environment, and immigration, that have connections with deep ethical or religious principles. But the search for answers to this question will lead in different directions than the search for the dynamics of polarization on the issues of the day.

There is a thoughtful letter to the editor of USA Today by David Engen of Spokane, Washington, that focuses on the decline of civil discourse. I find myself in agreement with him and others who are focusing on the decline of civility in American politics as absolutely central to fixing or mitigating what seems to be a decline of our political processes. Yet even the discussion of civility in American politics has been steeped in claims that one or another sectarian group is to blame, such as a recent story about whether voters see the Democrats or President Trump as more responsible for a decline in civility (Wise 2018).

Are we lost in what I would call a post-civic culture?

References

Almond, G. A., and Verba, S. (1963), The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dutton, W. H. (2017), Fake News, Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles: Underresearched and Overhyped, The Conversation, 5 May: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688

Engen, D. (2018), ‘We’re all Americans. Let’s be civil, please.’, Your Say section of USA Today, 2 July: page 5A.

Wise, J. (2018), ‘Poll: More Voters Blame Trump than Dems for Lack of Civility’, The Hill, 3 July: http://thehill.com/homenews/395371-poll-more-voters-blame-trump-than-dems-for-lack-of-civility

Fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles: Underresearched and overhyped: as appeared in The Conversation

Fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles: Underresearched and overhyped

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Don’t panic: An international survey finds concerns about fake news are overblown.
studiostoks/shutterstock.com

William H. Dutton, Michigan State University

In the early years of the internet, it was revolutionary to have a world of information just a click away from anyone, anywhere, anytime. Many hoped this inherently democratic technology could lead to better-informed citizens more easily participating in debate, elections and public discourse.

Today, though, many observers are concerned that search algorithms and social media are undermining the quality of online information people see. They worry that bad information may be weakening democracy in the digital age.

The problems include online services conveying fake news, splitting users into “filter bubbles” of like-minded people and enabling users to unwittingly lock themselves up in virtual echo chambers that reinforce their own biases.

These concerns are much discussed, but have not yet been thoroughly studied. What research does exist has typically been limited to a single platform, such Twitter or Facebook. Our study of search and politics in seven nations – which surveyed the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain in January 2017 – found these concerns to be overstated, if not wrong. In fact, many internet users trust search to help them find the best information, check other sources and discover new information in ways that can burst filter bubbles and open echo chambers.

Surveying internet users

We sought to learn directly from people about how they used search engines, social media and other sources of information about politics. Through funding from Google, we conducted an online survey of more than 14,000 internet users in seven nations.

We found that the fears surrounding search algorithms and social media are not irrelevant – there are problems for some users some of the time. However, they are exaggerated, creating unwarranted fears that could lead to inappropriate responses by users, regulators and policymakers.

The importance of searching

The survey findings demonstrate the importance of search results over other ways to get information. When people are looking for information, they very often search the internet. Nearly two-thirds of users across our seven nations said they use a search engine to look for news online at least once a day. They view search results as equally accurate and reliable as other key sources, like television news.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/pfmZV/1/

In line with that general finding, a search engine is the first place internet users go online for information about politics. Moreover, those internet users who are very interested in politics, and who participate in political activities online, are the most likely to use a search engine like Bing or Google to find information online about politics.

But crucially, those same users engaged in search are also very likely to get information about politics on other media, exposing themselves to diverse sources of information, which makes them more likely to encounter diverse viewpoints. Further, we found that people who are interested and involved in politics online are more likely to double-check questionable information they find on the internet and social media, including by searching online for additional sources in ways that will pop filter bubbles and break out of echo chambers.

Internet-savvy or not?

It’s not just politically interested people who have these helpful search habits: People who use the internet more often and have more practice searching online do so as well.

That leaves the least politically interested people and the least skilled internet users as most susceptible to fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers online. These individuals could benefit from support and training in digital literacy.

However, for most people, internet searches are critical for checking the reliability and validity of information they come across, whether online, on social media, on traditional media or in everyday conversation. Our research shows that these internet users find search engines useful for checking facts, discovering new information, understanding others’ views on issues, exploring their own views and deciding how to vote.

International variations

We found that people in different countries do vary in how much they trust and rely on the internet and searches for information. For example, internet users in Germany, and to a lesser extent those in France and the United Kingdom, are more trusting in TV and radio news, and more skeptical of searches and online information. Internet users in Germany rate the reliability of search engines lower than those in all the other nations, with 44 percent saying search engines are reliable, compared with 50 to 57 percent across the other six countries.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/nQXkq/2/

In Poland, Italy and Spain, people trust traditional broadcast media less and are more reliant on, and trusting of, internet and searching. Americans are in the middle; there were greater differences within European countries than between Europe as a whole and the U.S. American internet users were so much more likely to consult multiple sources of information that we called them “media omnivores.”

Internet users generally rely on a diverse array of sources for political information. And they display a healthy skepticism, leading them to question information and check facts. Regulating the internet, as some have proposed, could undermine existing trust and introduce new questions about accuracy and bias in search results.

The ConversationBut panic over fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles is exaggerated, and not supported by the evidence from users across seven countries.

William H. Dutton, Professor of Media and Information Policy, Michigan State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A Plea to Moderators of the US Presidential Debates

A Plea to Moderators of the US Presidential Debates and their Media Organizations

Lessons can be learned from this year’s primary debates and applied to enhance the value of the forthcoming US Presidential Debates, beginning on September 26th, 2016. The major lessons include the following:

  1. Moderators should aim to generate a debate between the candidates, and not move towards a series of interviews with the individual candidates. This was a problem with the primary ‘debates’. Ask questions that both candidates can respond to and debate.
  1. Put the candidates in the center of the discussion. It has been said that the moderator should not be the news coming out of the debate. The best moderator will be the one who can pose questions that will engage the candidates in an exchange among themselves and not a back and forth with the moderator.

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    Kennedy and Nixon in Debate
  1. Voters depend on the debates for information about the candidates and their views on the issues. The issues are those of domestic and foreign policy, not what she said or he said about the other. By focusing on the issues, the moderators have an opportunity to make the debates more valuable to voters, and that will be the test of the quality of these debates, not how entertaining, smart, informed or combative the moderator might be. The moderators are not running for office.

CNN argued that moderation of NBC’s “Commander in Chief Forum” with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump “exposed the many weaknesses of the moderator-driven format.” Actually, all of the primary debates, including those produced by CNN, proved this point quite dramatically. So, please set up a debate between the candidates rather than moderator-driven interviews.

The public can monitor whether the media organizations and their moderators follow this advice by critically viewing the debates on September 26, October 4 (Vice Presidential Candidates), October 9, and October 19.

Voting for Senator Bernie Sanders

There is nothing inevitable about Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic Party nomination and the 2016 Presidential election. He is not an heir to a political dynasty. He was supported by no more than 2 percent of the American voting public as recently as ten months ago. As I write, he remains behind Secretary Clinton in delegate counts.

However, he has risen in the polls, has won in the primary in seven states and counting, and is leading a growing movement anchored in the support of younger voters. Bernie Sanders is drawing support, primarily because he has a big idea – a critical perspective on what is wrong with American democratic governance.

He has put his finger on the undue influence of wealth on the conduct and outcome of elections. In line with other sophisticated analysts of our political system, such as Lawrence Lessig, he focuses our attention on the need for campaign finance reform, as one major means for addressing this problem.

This idea is central as it explains many other problems and issues. Rather than forming ad hoc, ‘whack a mole’ policy responses to a litany of issues, he has put his focus on a coherent explanation for why so many other issues are emerging.

That is why he continually brings debate back to this root explanation for many problems, even though it opens him up to superficial but false allegations of him being a single issue candidate. Not so. He has clear and compelling positions on all of the issues.

Is he too radical? Is he extreme in being a Democratic Socialist? No. Listen to him, and what he means by his philosophy. First, he wants free tuition for college students. Extreme? He argues that a college education today is equivalent to having a high school education in decades past. Public high school educations are tuition free in the United States, as they are funded by taxes, and he is simply extending this model to college – the new high school. This does not mean that high school education is not in need of greater support and reform. A quite funny refrain in England, is that you can get a good high school education in the US, but you have to go to college to get it. But that is another reason for extending public support to college, as is done in many countries across Europe, and not putting so many students in such great financial debt before they even begin their careers.

Is he too radical for calling for a greater redistribution of wealth? Nearly all taxes tend to be progressive and redistribute wealth. What he is saying is that the US has drifted into a period of sever income inequality, when the top one percent of households, about 1.4 million households, have benefitted far more in our economy than the bottom 99 percent. But its even worse. The top of the top one percent have benefitted dramatically more than the others among the one percent. Senator Sanders is arguing that the top one percent is not currently paying their fair share of taxes, and that they should. That is not extreme, or a radical idea. It is a progressive idea in the best sense of that word, adapted to the circumstances of today.

Is he inexperienced? No. Senator Sanders has held public offices for over thirty years. He is more experienced in holding an elected public office, as a Mayor, Representative, and then Senator, than any other candidate in either party that is running for president.

Finally, will he be fit as a Commander in Chief. As Senator Sanders argues, he has been on the right side of major decisions. He was opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when this was not a popular position in the US. Judgement is perhaps the most important quality of a prospective commander in chief.

I don’t agree with every position Senator Sanders has taken on every issue. For example, I am more supportive of reducing trade barriers, and not erecting greater barriers to international trade, but his discussion of trade initiatives in tonight’s CNN Debate is leading me to reconsider my position. Bernie Sanders is clear-headed, thoughtful, and focused on central issues for strengthening our democratic system, primarily through campaign finance reform.

There is no more important issue that the vitality of our democracy, and the extreme inequalities in wealth emerging and its impact on campaign financing, because these trends threaten to undermine the vitality of our democracy. Given the issues arising over infrastructure, immigration, jobs, and more, we certainly need a healthy, functional and stable democratic system for discussing these conflicts, and making decisions. This is where Senator Sanders – his ideas, demeanor and experience – will have real payoffs.

Bernie Sanders Rally MSU
Bernie Sanders Rally MSU

I attended his recent rally in East Lansing, Michigan, at Michigan State University. Two to three thousand were expected, but over ten thousand came to the rally. Being there and seeing the enthusiasm of such a diverse array of younger voters was one of the most encouraging political moments I’ve had in recent years. They see a promising vision for their future. They and we need a person with a vision of what needs to be done in the coming decades, not what can be done in the next few years. As others have found, you might well discover that Bernie is indeed the ‘real thing’.

Lining Up for Sander Rally at MSU
Lining Up for Sander Rally at MSU

 

 

Stop the Televised Debates and Shift to the Internet

The Republican debates are about to occur on television in ways that will provide an unfair advantage to the chosen ten, and undermine the campaign of at least six other candidates. Exposure of lesser known candidates on televised debates can make a significant difference.* Since there are viable alternatives to television determining the fate of the Republican primaries, they should be considered.

The Internet has no news hole. There is no limit of the number of candidates who could respond simultaneously, and on video, to the same questions. You could even include the Democratic Party candidates – why not? Ask all contenders the same questions. Simultaneously live stream their responses, and let the press and the votes pick and choose which candidates to view, and how to compare and contrast their responses. As they will be saved, some voters could look at all responses to the question of most interest to them, or look at all the responses of the candidates they want to know more about.

This idea was one aspect of The Democracy Network, developed by Tracy Westen, when he was President of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, and of The Democracy Network, during the early years of the Web.** His basic idea was that the issue positions of all candidates for all issues can be available on the Web, while television and the newspapers can only cover a selected set of candidates and issues, since they are limited by time and column inches, respectively.

This is clearly an opportunity to use the Interent to more fairly represent all the candidates in the primaries. Closer to the election, as the list grows shorter, a live televised debate could then be considered and be done in a fair way that does not put the media in the role of kingmaker.

* For example, see this study of Britain’s televised leadership debates: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1778442

** See: http://www.ifp.illinois.edu/nabhcs/abstracts/westen.html

Essays in Honour of Jay G. Blumler

I have just received my copy of a new and wonderful book, entitled Can the Media Serve Democracy? Essays in Honour of Jay G. Blumler (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), edited by Jay’s colleagues at Leeds, Stephen Coleman, Giles Moss and Katy Parry. What a fitting tribute to Jay. The volume focuses on the question that has driven Jay’s work over the decades, and the essays assemble some of the luminaries in the field, including Elihu Katz, Paulo Mancini, Denis McQuail, James Curran, David Weaver, and Sonia Livingstone, along with an interview with Jay himself.

The book was the centerpiece of a Festschrift held for Jay in Leeds this month, February 2015, organised by the editors. I could not be there, as I was attending a conference in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Comparative Communication Research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. You can imagine my pleasure when the first paper and panel of the conference provided a review and citation analysis of literature in this field and Jay G. Blumler was noted as perhaps the most prominent, and influential communication scholar of comparative media studies. Moreover, Jay continued to be praised throughout the conference, including his role as President of the ICA and an editor of Comparatively Speaking (1992). What great illustration of the global impact and longevity of his work? In sync with the message of influence provided at the Hong Kong conference, James Curran’s essay in the Festschrift book is entitled ‘Jay Blumler: A Founding Father of British Media Studies’.

This is a book that is must reading for any media and communication scholar. It grapples with the fundamental question of media studies, including studies of the Internet, social media and related new media. Jay stayed focused on the big questions, whether studying British election coverage, the emergence of wired cities, back in the 1980s with me, or the rise of new media since the turn of the century. And the range of contributions from key scholars in the field make this book one of the best contemporary treatments of the media and democracy available, not only for scholars of the field, but also for students, who can see through this book the potential of an individual to shape major fields of communication. My thanks to the editors for such an outstanding collection.

References

Blumler, J. G. (1992), Comparatively Speaking. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Coleman, S., Moss, G., and Parry, K. (2015), Can Democracy Serve Democracy? London: Palgrave Macmillan.